Scales Every Musician Should Know

One of the best ways to practice is being able to make use of both your hard music skills as well as the soft music skills simultaneously through the use of music scales.

Major scales, arpeggios, and music exercises can help further skill with an instrument while developing harmony recognition and deeper melodic understanding. To further develop musicianship, you can practice with variations in timing and intonation. For instance, many jazz pianists actually practice scales in harmony form through transposing or performing in different voicing registers:

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Learning concepts like the Cycle of Fifths is essential for this. Memorizing the relationship between notes in the chromatic scale will help you develop your own scale exercises to challenge and increase your skill.

Additional exercises can be added through the use of different time signatures or rhythms, such as swing eighths (every other eighth note as a slightly different length but still lands on the 2nd and 4th downbeat).

Practicing scales also develops your aural musicianship skills, especially when you learn the types of relationships  between notes in non-traditional or Western scales. Not only can these musical relationships inspire new music ideas, but it will deepen your improvisational skills as well.

Here’s what jazz legend Chick Corea says about scales:

1) Learn all the scales you can find – from books, from recordings, from listening to live music, from questioning other musicians—and especially from transcribing from recordings any scales that sound interesting to you.

2) Take these scales (you can start with just one or two) and start experimenting with them. Play them—fool around with them. See what music you can make with them. See how they may fit into songs or improvisations that you like. Make sure you continue to use your own judgment about what works or doesn’t work—what sounds good to you and what doesn’t.

3) When you find some scales that you really like and the music starts to flow, write songs and phrases with the new scales. Improvise with them. Perform the songs. See how it goes. Then write some more.

4) Once you see that you can do these first 3 things (and you can do them over and over again)—then begin creating your own scales. Try a series of notes that sound good to you. Write them down. Even give them names if you want to. Write songs and improvise with these. Combine them with other scales you’ve learned.

4a) By the way, you can do the same thing (1 through 4) with chords and voicings.

5) And finally – forget all about “scales” and “what chords and notes fit into them”—and just play what you hear!

You can do 1 through 5 over and over and over – – and build up your “repertoire” of scales, chords and various techniques—and keep inventing new ones. Eventually these “techniques” become part of you because you are now “inventing” them—therefore you now never need to rely on “memorization”—it’s all just a flow of creation, always in a new unit of present time.

Ahhh—easy to say—but—the test and the fulfillment is in the ACTION! Good luck—and many happy (and/or grueling) hours of searching and creativity—and making Music!

Activity 1: The Cycle of Fifths

The Cycle of Fifths is both a visual as well as aural tool to help understand the twelve tones of the chromatic scale, their key signatures, and their associated major and minor keys. Every musician should memorize the concept in order to help transpose songs, compose. produce harmonies, and understanding key signatures.

Every note has an equal interval of a tempered fifth with the next note. If you visualize it on the wheel, as you move clockwise to the next fifth’s key signature, the number of sharps increase. Conversely, if you rotate counter-clockwise from a note’s fifth, the number of flats increase. For example, in the key of C major, there would be no sharps or flats. However, its fifth, G has one sharp, D has two sharps, A has three, and so on. Moving counter clockwise from C, F has one flat, Bb has two flats, Eb has three, and so on.

This is a visual representation of the wheel itself:

Cycle of FifthsScreen Shot 2017-12-04 at 12.50.00 PM.png

Learning the order of sharps and flats is a fundamental, but often ignored skill outside of those who have been classically trained.

Activity 2: Learn Other Related, Advanced, Circles

If you have mastered the Cycle of Fifths and are able to not only play but recognize the musical intervals, consider looking up and learning other important musical concepts, such as:

  • The Cycle of Fourths
  • Diatonic Circle of Fifths
  • Chromatic Circle
  • Enharmonics
  • Pitch Constellation

Activity 3: Every Scale a Musician Should Know

Below are the most common scales that are used to construct most chords and are the foundation of many songs:

  • All 12 Major Scales
  • Modes of the Major Scale
  • Minor Scales
  • Natural Minor Scale
  • Harmonic Minor Scale
  • Melodic Minor Scale
  • Chromatic Scale
  • Pentatonic Scales
  • Whole-Tone Scale
  • Octatonic Scale

Additionally, there are essential scales specifically used in jazz music as well. Below are several popular examples:

  • Dominant Bebop Scale
  • Minor Bebop Scale
  • Major Bebop Scale
  • Harmonic Minor Bebop Scale
  • Lydian Dominant Scale

Most people are only familiar with those musical ideas of the genres or cultures that they’re familiar with. Learning scales from other genres of music of culture can help you produce more interesting sounds, chords, and musical phrases, especially if you’ve only trained with traditional Western scales. It’s a great way to not only stand out, but expand your creative horizons as well.

For instance, the Phrygian Dominant Scale is especially common in Arabic and Egyptian music.

Here it is in the key of C:

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The Double harmonic is another popular, slightly different variation:

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When practicing your instrument(s), familiarize yourself with all of these scales. Obviously, there are many more that aren’t even listed here so if you have these down, feel free to explore and grow your musical horizons even more. You can also expand your practice repertoire by incorporating swing time signatures, harmonies, and other variations as well.

Activity 4: Write Your Own Scales

When you consider the core concept of a scale – any series of notes that go up or down, you can create your own scales be putting together a series of notes that sound good to you. Write the scale down, transcribe it to other keys. You can also program that scale into a synthesizer or music composition program to use as an arpeggiator or the start of a song.


For more advice, check out my book, Music Business Hacks on sale now!

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